Yom Kippur I 2015/5776
In 2011 at the age of 26, Csanad Szegedi rose to great popularity, was the wonder boy of Hungary’s Jobbik party and their representative on the European Parliament. The Jobbik party is a right wing party which is nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and fueled itself with anti-semitic hatred. Amongst his anti-semitic tropes were playing off Jewish sterotypes: ‘This budget will make Hungarians poorer and Jews richer.” He even accused the Jewish intelligentsia of doing harm to the holy throne of St Steven, Hungary’s first king.
In 2011 one of his political opponents wanted to discredit him, so they dug around to see what kind of dirt they could find on him. Sounds like an episode from one of the popular tv political drama. Except that the skeleton in his closet they found was that his maternal grandmother and grandfather were Jewish. She was a holocaust survisor of Auschwitz, he survived a labor camp, and they raised her dauther, his mother, without telling her she was Jewish. They hid their Jewish background from the family and his grandmother wore long sleeves to hide the tattooed number on her arm. They erased their Jewish identity because they were afraid of another holocaust. When Csanad went to his grandmother to find out about her background, she admitted the truth to him.
At first Csanad tried to live with this contradiction. He said ‘it does not matter what you are born, as long as you live as a patriotic Hungarian.’ His political opponents saw past the contradiction he was not willing to face, and said ‘we might as well just take you and put a bullet in your head, your life is finished.’ Imagine that you are a die-hard Yankees fan who lives in New York, and in a trunk in the attic you find a trove of Boston Red Sox baseball cards. You find out your family was originally from Boston, and that your grandparents were Boston Red Sox fans. But seriously, imagine that your family background originates from the very group you have been demonizing your whole life. It is hard for us to imagine what personal turmoil he must have gone through, to put in question everything he had been living for. It takes a great deal of inner strength, and a deep sense of self to be able to let go of one’s identity, to walk away from the life you have built up which involved such great success. Szegedi quit the party, but he did not stop there. He began to investigate Judaism by speaking with his grandmother who told him more about their Jewish background and about growing up in a Jewish home in Hungary before the war. He also went to speak to the chief Rabbi of Hungary. To be open to hearing about the very ideology he had been maligning for years, and then starting to embrace it requires a person not just to be able to put in question what they believe, but to have the courage and determination to be open-minded and flexible. After studying about Judaism, Szekedi started to take steps to live a Jewish life. Today Szekedi keeps Kosher and Shabbat, and has changed his name to David. He had himself circumcised and wears a kipa. He went on a trip to Israel with his brother and his wife is contemplating conversion. In a dramatic action of penitence, he bought thousands of copies of his book which spewed hatred and had them burned.
Many believe that people do not really change. We are born a certain way, and we remain that way for the rest of our lives. While I do believe that people have a basic nature and personality, however the Torah tells us that we are capable of change. That process is called Teshuva. Listen to what Maimonides says about teshuva
‘The person should distance him/herself from the matter in which they transgressed, and change their name, and say ‘I am a different person and I am not the person who did those things.’ And he/she should change their actions for the good, and to a righteous path, and should exile themselves from their place.’
What is Maimonides’ source for this statement? If we look at Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, these are the test that they surmounted to pursue their journey towards G-d. They left where they lived, the home they had known their whole lives and went to a new place. Their names were changed.
You see many of the steps that David took were the path to personal transformation advocated my Maimonides and blazed by Abraham and Sarah. He exiled himself from his place, he left the Jabbok party. He changed his name, he is now David, and he distanced himself so much from what he had done that he burned the copies of the book he wrote.
Now most people are not leading such extreme lives sunk in such darkness that they need to burn copies of the book they wrote. But we have probably heard stories of people who made dramatic changes in their lives because they were not happy with their lives or because they felt they could more out of their life. They quit their rat race job, moved to the country and opened a small country store. I know people who worked in a very corporate setting and went back to school to pursue they found more meaningful, some as teachers, some as social workers. Or some of you know my story, I was an atheist and had not done any Jewish things in my life for 5 years during my late teens and early adulthood until I went to Israel at the tail end of trip around Europe and Africa. I started studying Torah, and as you can see I eventually went on to adopt a Torah observant lifestyle and to dedicate my life to studying and teaching Torah. These stories shows us that people can change, that we can change our values and re-arrange our priorities and can take a new direction in life.
Now, I realize that most people are not going to make such dramatic changes in their lives, and maybe they do not have to. But we can ask ourselves that question, what if I could change anything in my life, what would I envision for myself? By doing this exercise we can put in perspective the lives we are living, and we might be more likely to question the parts of our lives with which we are dissatisfied or where we feel we are compromising ourselves and to make changes.
Czanad Szegedi’s story can challenge us to question ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves, am I being true to my real self? Do I feel my real self is able to flourish in the life I am currently leading?
On Yom Kippur we also can bring in the spiritual dimension to these q uestions: Do I have soul outlets in my life, do I nuture my spiritual side? Do I invest enough in my Jewish life, or do I allow it to be relegated to a secondary sidebar which only appears on a couple of pages in my yearly calendar?
Change is very challenging, sometimes it requires us to let go of beliefs or habits that we know are not the best for us, or which we know we have outgrown but we simply cannot let go of.
The idea of Yom Kippur is that we do not wait for the kind of wake up calls Szegedi got from his political opponent-which might never come – but to examine our lives, what values they are based upon, how we are living them and how they can improve.